Or Can We Turn Back Time?
Some things will always be timeless; I still remember the excitement of the teenage me when playing Max Payne, the novelty of the comic book art style and the sheer pleasure of slow motion jumping into a room full of mafia goons and filling them full of lead. There is no denying that Max Payne was a revolutionary game, if only for the introduction of Bullet Time to the world.
I am also one of the ten people on the planet who loved Alan Wake, clunky controls included, so it will come as no surprise when I started drooling at the release trailers for Remedy’s latest outing, Quantum Break. The trailers promised us much; grippingly beautiful graphics, the usual intriguing story and a new mechanic: stopping time.
Now the game has been out a few months, the dust has settled on the mixed reviews and I’m sure several of you will have played it, and some of you will have hated it. Clunky action, underwhelming gameplay and too many cutscenes, right? Well, if you think that then I’m here to tell you that you played it wrong. That’s right, you heard me.
The modern gaming era (post 2008) has made us lazy as gamers. Endless Call of Duty (and clone) games, with their perfect graphics and ever shortening stories have enticed the *shudders* ‘casual gamer’ swearily out of the shadows and onto headsets, leading developers to lower the bar from the thoughtful and incredibly well made shooters that prefaced them (Half Life 2 anybody?).
Even worse is the nightmarish generation now watching other people play games on Youtube. Now, for some games, I think this is totally appropriate. I’m certainly guilty of using trophy guides, or watching someone playing a game if I’m on the fence about buying it. But what of the thoughtful, introspective games that want you to be lonely? The Dark Souls series does its best to create an immersive, oppressive atmosphere of struggling from bonfire to bonfire. Watching someone else play it whilst giggling and screaming into a microphone lessens that experience for me. The games I grew up loving were all about being immersed in an experience and whilst there may be an argument that it’s up to developers to make us feel that way, I feel there is a responsibility of the audience to at least try to go with them and experience their art as they intended it to be.
This brings me back to my point. Yes, Quantum Break’s time mechanic was limited to glamorous bullet time and a few very spurious time puzzles, but this was never a game that was about a revolutionary mechanic, just as Max Payne was never about Bullet Time. Also, remember in the context of the game he has only a few hours to learn to use his powers, not the years Paul has had. I’d have liked more complex puzzles, but narratively it made sense to limit them.
The time mechanics in both games were framing devices for the story of the main character. Make no mistake, the story was sublime. Whilst I will be the first person to be annoyed at its brevity, and I absolutely accept that the levels were very short, it was the first game since Dragon Age Inquisition where I felt that that compulsion to finish it. The story of a brother’s love, rage and revenge, it played like a movie.
I felt driven to catch the evil Paul, and ignored all logic in the chase for vengeance, justice and heroic triumph. Even as time went on, and every genius character in the game told Jack that there was no way he could fix anything, still I believed they were wrong. He would do it, would he not? After all, I’m the hero and the hero always wins. The real genius is, that is exactly how Jack feels. This is his chase, and the ridiculousness of the logic and refusal to bow to the inevitable was a clever play on audience expectation. The game painstakingly told us how it would end, and yet we spent the whole time thinking things would turn out differently just because we were the ones playing it. Just as Jack was confused and ignored things because they did not suit the narrative he was trying to create, so did we too as gamers.
Maybe you chose differently in the junction points, and the resulting decisions did not play out the way you wanted them to. I replayed every single one to make sure I watched all the videos, and definitely feel that some decisions were better than others. When I played it first time, I tried to act like Paul would. We know that he loved Jack, and genuinely wanted his help. So I was compassionate, then disbelieving, and by the end enraged. I gave into the immersion and tried to make the decisions I felt the character would make, not the ones that I would make. That subtle distinction totally changed how I experienced everything.
Take even the complaints that the in action graphics were fuzzy. If you look really closely, you can see trails as Jack moves, almost like he is moving in an adrenaline fuelled dream, where nothing is real and he has no time for details. Isn’t that exactly what his story was like? Again, a clever design ploy that feels like a creative decision rather than a lazy one.
Another complaint was that if people skipped the collectibles, or did not watch the mini-series in between each episode then things did not make much sense. Why do you think they included them in the first place? That’s the nod to the gamer, the moment to relax and enjoy the world they’ve built, a brief respite from the insanity. They were informative, funny and endearing, fantastic bits of world building and a brave innovation to stick between the episodes.
Sure, the combat could have been much slicker, but if you did not have fun stopping a hall full of soldiers and then making time explode around them, then I really have no idea what could possibly entertain you.
The real innovation was Remedy’s commitment to delivering a story that was consistent to the world they created, where the experience was immersive, but demanded your attention and willingness to play as the characters, rather than just treat it like disposable Youtube fodder. If you didn’t enjoy it first time round, go back to it, shut out the world around you and BE Jack Joyce. Trust me, you won’t regret it.
Johnny Di Girolamo / @jdigirolamo